Are You An Accidental CTO?

Are you an Accidental CTO? Someone who fell into the role ahead of schedule or without much preparation?

This article looks at what we define as an ‘Accidental CTO’ and some of the significant managerial challenges they face when grappling with a fast growth environment

CTO Academy launched in 2018 with a mission, to help ambitious developers and CTOs enhance the management and softer skills required for them to achieve their ambitions.

From our own experiences as CTOs and entrepreneurs, we’ve seen some brilliant technical talent stumble and struggle at senior level, when it becomes as much if not more about the managerial.

Our aim was and is to help the individual — via courses, content or coaching — concentrate on how and where they need round the skills required to become an effective C level executive.

As with every new business, you head out into the market with some research and validation behind you but unsure exactly how the market will react, the type of customer that will gain the most benefit and the nuances on how they want to use your product.

One customer persona that has emerged as one of the key early buyers of CTO Academy is what we term “The Accidental CTO”, defined in two ways …

(1) The founder in a fast growth start-up who quickly finds the growth out sprinting his/her skill set and …

(2) The developer who has been rapidly promoted from within but again, without the necessary rounded skills to cope.

We were recently contacted by a recently appointed CTO (falling into category 1) who was involved in a company that was moving much quicker than his skill set could handle, leading him to feel vulnerable of being exposed, the imposter syndrome writ large.

He didn’t feel comfortable telling anyone for fear of the impact on him personally and the business more generally, so was bottling it up with no outlet to let of steam or seek reassurance, with potentially serious consequences for his mental health and behaviour away from work.

This was not a unique call as we see a growing number of our clients we define as‘Accidental CTOs’, talented and motivated individuals beginning to feel isolated and vulnerable as the business and expectations accelerate around them.

What should be an exciting and thrilling ride, can very soon become a stressful and potentially damaging one.

In these scenarios, our role is often as much about providing support and reassurance, as walking our ‘Accidental CTOs’ through the management skills required to better negotiate these changes and demands.

So what managerial pressures can emerge for the Accidental CTO, that they might not have been fully prepared for. Every individual is different but some of the issues that have emerged recently include …

How to handle board meetings, particularly how to handle investor directors. What are the expectations and how do you handle the new pressure and reporting expectations that comes with the arrival of investors?

Working relationship with the CEO can change dramatically as you grow and both have to absorb new and sometimes contrasting pressures. The colleague you sat around the kitchen table with during pre-revenue phase, might require different handling as the company takes off. They’re probably going through the same investor syndrome as you, but neither of you acknowledge or even recognise it.
Need to move away from the keyboard that emerges as managerial tasks soak up your time and intellectual capacity. There is a new discipline required in delegation and not taking over all technical tasks.

You need to start hiring for a good team fit and much less about whether it’s someone you personally like. Clearly hiring should remain personal but as the team expands and gaps emerge, you have to recruit on the basis of team fit.

Roadmap and deadlines have to be increasingly aligned within the strategy of the company. Structure and discipline and targets and reporting become onerous, to that free spirit who just wanted to create shiny new things. Extension of this is that quality issues are on your head but might have been outside your control.

Talking to the customer is not something the traditional techie has to worry about but at the senior level it’s increasingly crucial to be at the customer coalface in understanding how they interact with the product. You will need to have operational communication with sales and support and be developing products on the basis of direct customer feedback. These are not conversations you’re used too. Those marketing people speak a completely different language.

Budgets and financial language become part of the landscape and we know from the people who undertake our skills test, that this is clearly an area of concern.

If you’re an Accidental CTO then you might recognise some of these issues and find yourself burdened by the strains of them yourself.

Well, you’re not alone. Lots of others out there grappling with similar. The key is to recognise it’s often a lonely journey. Don’t be in denial of what you need to do about it and wherever possible, ask for help.

Bottling it up is not healthy for you or the long term stability of the business.

CTO Academy : Management skills training and mentoring for tech leaders

and developers around the world

View our management courses here

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